Ten years ago I began writing a quest fantasy and went on a journey at the same time. Outwardly it was a physical journey, with real signposts: from fluorescent-lit offices in the Empire State Building to a sunlit apartment in Jerusalem, to a wedding, another apartment, and onward. Like many journeys in fiction, ultimately it came full circle, back to the city where it began. As with a fictional character, I did not return the same. Because in truth, despite the dramatic life transitions, the real journey was taking place internally, was threading its way with subtle inexorability into the shaping of my first novel.
You could say it began before the Empire State Building, in college. I was taking a class in basic Astronomy, and the professor was using metaphors to describe the size of the quasars. While I don't recall the exact metaphors used, what I do remember is the realization that struck me. Or rather, it was a question. I remember looking down at my knees, demurely covered with a long black skirt. I remember thinking: How can a God who created a universe that big--a God who created the quasars--care about the length of my skirt?
I had grown up with a strict code of modesty for women. Like most women raised in that context, I had bought into the apologetics: that modesty was intertwined with female preciousness, our sanctity. In practice, these transcendent concepts broke into quotidian specifications: the permitted length for one's sleeves and skirts, the height of a neckline.
Skirts, necklines, sleeves, against the vastness of the universe. It began to break down.
I started writing my novel before the advent of social media--even before Facebook was where people announced the details of their breakfasts in the third person. I've come to realize years later that a lot was happening on LiveJournal, but I wasn't plugged into it. Today the discussion about what female protagonists should be, how they should be written, is a major topic of the literary Internet. But in 2004 I had only my own thoughts and ideas and some pent-up anger. Pent up, it must be admitted, beneath long sleeves and long black skirts. Sometimes the most outward appearances are the last things to go.
I was also researching the medieval troubadours and courtly love for my book about poets, and the themes that emerged from my readings resonated in surprising ways. The discourse about women, and the symbolism surrounding them, was centered on sex yet oddly detached from the reality of sensuality. And again, the woman was something precious, protected--and stationary.
There are two female protagonists in the novel. They suffer. I did that to them. But I didn't do it out of sadism. Through these women, each different--though both very intelligent--I explored a particular experience. One of the protagonists is a poet in a society where poets have power, and women are not permitted in their ranks. She calls herself a poet, but actually doesn't count as one in the ways that matter. The other protagonist is a young woman whose wealth, beauty, and loving home have kept her in a state of extended innocence.
For each of these states of being there is a cost--both for the active state of rebellion, and the passive state of innocence. And modesty, or rather the code of thought which culminates in female modesty, is at the heart of both of these states for women. A woman who deviates from her traditional place, who draws attention to herself, is immodest by definition. She loses the protection and sanction of her society and becomes an exile.
Conversely, my innocent protagonist represents an ideal of femininity for proponents of modesty. She has no weapons with which to defend herself, because to learn about defense we must first know what might be about to attack us from the shadows. The world is ready to eat her alive.
After I wrote the story of these women--along with their male counterparts--I began to come across discussions online about how writers should depict female protagonists. I followed, and have continued to follow these discussions, and have written some of my own thoughts on the subject as well. But when I think of my own characters, I think of the inward battles that made them what they are. They are shaped of conflicting values and agonized questions and some fury. Not perfect, not anyone's ideal--but for the place and time in which they were written, necessary and real.
Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Salon. Her first novel, Last Song Before Night, an epic fantasy of poets and dark enchantments, is forthcoming from Tor/Macmillan under the pen name Ilana C. Myer.
This article is reprinted with permission from Locus Roundtable Blog, edited by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro.